Animals offer a unique perspective in the lives of the people around them. How we use and view animals—as well as what kinds there are—tell a story about the humans around them. The same is true for the animals found in the pages of the Book of Mormon. Through science and a scholarly study of this book of scripture, we learn much about these ancient peoples as we research the animals around them.
Do Science and Scholarly Research Detract from The Book of Mormon?
Before we embark on a scholarly study of animals in the Book of Mormon, it’s important to recognize that this is a side topic. The Book of Mormon is another testament of Jesus Christ and contains the fullness of His gospel—and its primary role is to testify and teach of Him. In this capacity, it is a companion scripture to the Holy Bible. Prophets and apostles have counseled us that our scripture study should focus on gaining a spiritual testimony of the Savior and His teachings. Elder Russell M. Nelson said:
I have read [The Book of Mormon] many times. I have also read much that has been written about it. Some authors have focused upon its stories, its people, or its vignettes of history. Others have been intrigued by its language structure or its records of weapons, geography, animal life, techniques of building, or systems of weights and measures.
Interesting as these matters may be, study of the Book of Mormon is most rewarding when one focuses on its primary purpose—to testify of Jesus Christ. By comparison, all other issues are incidental.
But does that mean that we aren’t supposed to study the other aspects of the Book of Mormon? Latter-day Saint scholars say no. Daniel C. Peterson, a professor of Islamic studies at Brigham Young University (or BYU, the flagship school of The Church of Jesus Christ), wrote:
Serious study of the Book of Mormon by Latter-day Saints is flourishing today as never before. And, with more study, the book’s sturdiness and richness and the remarkable accomplishment of its translator, the Prophet Joseph Smith, become more apparent for everyone to see.
Of course, scholarship does not replace spiritual witness as a source of testimony. … Yet scholarship has a definite place even in spiritual matters. … For one thing, careful scholarship helps us to understand more fully, deeply, and precisely.
Science and scholarship help us learn more about where and how these ancient American peoples lived. But sometimes the research seems to create questions. How do we reconcile this? Morris S. Petersen, a former geology professor at BYU, explained:
The findings of science and the statements made in the scriptures are not entirely exclusive of each other. Often, the one augments knowledge supplied by the other. … The relationship between scripture and what is currently understood in science is ever changing. Science continually learns more about the history of life on earth, and we have every reason to believe that much more will be learned as research continues.
The struggle to correlate a passage in scripture with a specific portion of scientific research has been a challenge for centuries. But experience has shown that what a person understands today will be modified by tomorrow’s discoveries. Patience and humility will eventually resolve all questions—if not in this life, then in the next.
Scholars and researchers don’t detract from the message of the Book of Mormon. Rather, they enhance our reading experience by bringing these ancient cultures to life.
What Do We Learn from Animals about Life in Ancient Times?
Although the study of animals in the Book of Mormon is a side topic, it is a very interesting one. Just as the animals around us can tell a story about how we live, so too do the animals found in the Book of Mormon give us clues as to how they lived. In 1 Nephi 16:15-32, we read the story about how Nephi broke his bow, and all of his brothers were angry with him because their bows were broken also. Nephi never mentions what kind of “food” they killed, only calling them “wild beasts” in verse 31. So initially, Nephi and his family hunted for food to eat.
Eventually, however, they settled down and began planting crops. Wade E. Miller, a retired BYU professor, and Matthew Roper, a Research Scholar at the Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship at BYU, wrote:
It seems that the record keepers, especially Moroni, chose to provide only the names of animals that they thought important or useful. In several verses where “beasts” are mentioned, it’s apparent that different types of animals are meant. In Ether 10:26 a statement is made that the Jaredites, “… did make all manner of tools with which they did work their beasts.” Here the indication is that some animals were worked with plows or other such contrivances in the growing of crops.
So we learn that the peoples farmed the land to grow their food. We also gain insight into these peoples by the indirect mention of animals. The writers of the Book of Mormon had to use phrases that the people would understand and to which they could relate. Miller and Roper wrote:
Animals are mentioned in the Book of Mormon in different contexts. On the one hand they have been directly cited as animals with which there was an interaction with Jaredites, Nephites or Lamanites, or else it was implied. On the other hand indirect references to given animals were also made. Examples of this include Mosiah 12:5, “… they shall be driven before like a dumb ass.” Alma 5:59, “For what shepherd is there among you having many sheep doth not watch over them, that the wolves enter not and devour his flock?” Helaman 7:19, “… behold he shall scatter you forth that ye shall become meat for dogs and wild beasts.” Reference is also made to lions. In Mosiah 20:10 it’s stated “…for they fought like lions.” … These statements indicate that the people of the times represented were aware of at least lion-like animals. … The point to be made is that the animals mentioned in this manner must have been familiar to those who were hearing the preaching. In other words these were animals which most likely lived in the area and with which the peoples had an interaction.
It is also possible that the Book of Mormon peoples knew of lions and other creatures simply from their readings of the scriptures they brought with them, the “Old Testament” writings up to 600 B.C.
Questions & Problems Arising from Book of Mormon Beasts
While a study of animals in the Book of Mormon provides interesting background information for readers, it also creates questions and problems. Miller and Roper wrote:
From the time of the Book’s first printing in 1830, people no doubt speculated on many of the things it contained in addition to the doctrines presented. For example some of the plant and animal names were a mystery. Some still are. The fact that horses and asses and elephants are included as indigenous animals has been a challenge to some readers of the Book of Mormon since these animals are generally thought to have been introduced either after the arrival of Europeans in the Americas, or extinct long before Book of Mormon times.
“Cureloms” and “cumoms” also raise questions. (See Ether 9:19.) To begin with, what are they? How do we know that they really existed?
The simple answer to all of these questions is: Some things we have to accept on faith. But a more in-depth, scholarly answer begins with the question: Where did the Book of Mormon peoples live? Here is the long, scholarly approach to each of these queries:
1. Where did Book of Mormon peoples live?
We have to answer this question first because we have to know (or at least have an educated guess) as to where to begin our search. Michael R. Ash, writer for FairMormon (The Foundation for Apologetic Information and Research), explains:
The Lord has never revealed the specific location of Book of Mormon events. Instead, we are left to our own speculations concerning Book of Mormon geography….
However, Ash, Miller and Roper all point out that many scholars believe the Book of Mormon peoples lived in Mesoamerica. Miller and Roper wrote:
The limited size of Book of Mormon lands is outlined within its text. This has been the almost universal conclusion of scholars who have carefully considered the matter. Information utilized includes positions of the seas and other aquatic features, mountains, the “narrow neck of land,” distances, duration of time of travels and directions traveled by the people. All appear compatible within Mesoamerica. No other geographic location in the New World matches these data as well.
This location gives us a framework in which to answer the remaining questions.
2. Weren’t elephants and horses extinct?
Scholars point out that we can’t really pinpoint the exact date and time that an animal became extinct. Miller and Roper wrote:
… Obtaining an exact date for the last surviving member of any extinct species would be next to impossible. Winning the lottery would be thousands of times more likely. As one team of scientists has observed, “The youngest reliably dated macrofossil (usually a bone or tooth) of an extinct species is commonly taken to represent the approximate time of its disappearance. In practice, however, there is a very low probability of discovering fossil remains of the last members of any species, so ages for extinction based on dated macrofossil finds will likely be [show as] older than the true ages.” Only a miniscule number of the animals that have lived on earth have become fossilized or preserved. And even though an animal might have been abundant in an area in the past, its remains (including fossils) could well go undetected, or not even exist.
Since not everything that ever existed in Mesoamerica has been found, we cannot positively say that something did not exist. It must be understood that the lack of evidence is not evidence.
In addition, Ash believes that there is evidence to support the finding of elephants in the Book of Mormon. He writes:
The only place that elephants are mentioned in the Book of Mormon is in Ether 9:19 in approximately 2500 B.C. Thus any elephants existing upon the American continents need not have survived past about 2400 B.C. …
Scientists agree that mammoths and mastodons once inhabited the Americas, and an article in Scientific Monthly, entitled “Men and Elephants in America,” suggests that these proboscidean animals (elephants, mammoths, mastodons) may have survived in the Americas until 1000 B.C., well within the time frame demanded by the Book of Mormon.
Miller and Roper also cited evidence for the existence of elephants in these lands:
Evidence for the survival of the elephant can be found in Native American myths and traditions. Some of these traditions may be rooted in Native American discoveries of the bones of extinct fauna, while other myths could be founded on actual encounters with living species which had notable elephant-like characteristics. Indigenous people along the northern coast of the Gulf of Mexico have traditions of giant beasts with long noses that could trample people and uproot trees. Abenaki tradition tells of a great “elk” that could easily walk through more than eight feet of snow, whose skin was said to be tough and had “a kind of arm which grows out of his shoulder, which he makes use of as we do ours.” The Naskapi people tell of a large monster that once trampled them and left deep tracks in the snow had large ears and a long nose with which he hit people.
There is similar scientific evidence of horses and asses in Book of Mormon times, according to Miller and Roper. They found:
Some researchers in the past have suggested that references to horses in the Book of Mormon could refer to other animals in the land of promise which had characteristics which in certain ways resembled those of the horse or the ass. While this is possible, we believe that it is most likely that the horse mentioned was the horse as we know it. However, this does not mean that they survived everywhere in the Americas or that they were numerous. Growing evidence, though, supports a post-Pleistocene survival of very small populations. Therefore, references to horses in the Book of Mormon text seem very plausible. We feel that there is a strong case for the survival of the horse well past the close of the Pleistocene Epoch into the limited regions occupied by Book of Mormon peoples in the Formative Mayan Period. Horses are not mentioned in the Book of Mormon after the time of Christ (3 Nephi 6:1). It is possible that the subsequent disasters associated with the death of Christ (3 Nephi 8-10) or the wars and famines of later years (Alma 45:11; Mormon 2:8) may have led to their final extinction. It’s possible, too, that horses just were not mentioned in the limited commentary of 3 Nephi. If there were limited numbers of horses and asses in Nephite or Lamanite cultures, it would not be surprising that evidence for them could be very difficult to find.
Ash also supports the theory that horses and asses were indeed found in the time period of the Book of Mormon. He writes:
At least a few non-Mormon scholars believe that real horses (of a stature smaller than modern horses) may have survived New World extinction. The late British anthropologist, M.F. Ashley Montague, a non-LDS scholar who taught at Harvard, suggested that the horse never became extinct in America. According to Montague, the size of post-Columbian horses provides evidence that the European horses bred with early American horses.
Non-LDS Canadian researcher, Yuri Kuchinsky, also believes that there were pre-Columbian horses. Kuchinsky, however, believes that horses (smaller than our modern horses) were reintroduced into the west coast of the Americas about 2000 years ago from Asians who came by ship. Among Kuchinsky’s evidences for pre-Columbian horses are (1) horse traditions among the Indians that may pre-date the arrival of the Spaniards, (2) supposedly pre-Columbian petroglyphs that appear to depict horses, and (3) noticeable differences between the typical Spanish horse and the much smaller Indian ponies.
Another possible explanation is that the horse that we know today didn’t exist in Book of Mormon times but that the ancient record keepers used the term horse to describe another animal whose characteristics were similar to that of a horse. Ash explains:
When translators run into the problem of untranslateable words, they resolve the issue by way of several options–such as adaptation, paraphrasing, borrowing, and more. The same thing happens when people find it necessary to label new and unfamiliar items—what is known as cross-cultural onomastica (onomastica refers to the names we assign to people, animals, or things). Anthropologists and linguists tell us that when a society encounters foreign floral and fauna, they often “loan-shift” words–they expand familiar terms to include unfamiliar items. Loan-shifting can also happen during the translation of one language to another. Two languages need not resemble each other phonetically in order for loan-shifting to occur. Instead of creating entirely new words for unfamiliar things, sometimes people tend to “translate” new things into their own language by expanding their current words to include the new item.
3. What are cureloms and cumoms?
Cureloms and cumoms are perhaps the most intriguing beasts mentioned in the Book of Mormon because they are unfamiliar names. We have seen pictures of elephants, horses and asses and so when we read the word, we form a picture in our minds. We can’t do this with the cureloms and cumoms because we have no frame of reference for them. But Miller and Roper have some ideas about what they could be. They explained:
… They had to have been animals that lived in Book of Mormon lands, ostensibly in Mesoamerica, and during the time that the Jaredites lived there. LDS archaeologist, John Sorenson was of the opinion (1992) that cureloms and cumoms were probably large animals. This seems reasonable as in Ether 9:18-19 they are grouped with the elephant, and designated as being especially useful. Among other things, they likely were beasts of burdens.
Using these criteria, Miller and Roper offer suggestions for what these animals could be. They wrote:
One good candidate in our opinion is a member of the camel family. The present New World members of this family are the llamas. … Although llamas are no longer native to North America, extinct species were. … Several archaeological sites, including some in Mesoamerica, have yielded co-occurrences of llamas and man. … There are also petroglyphs in the American Southwest which show very llama-like animals.
…. The llama makes a very good beast of burden, and its pelt is used for blankets and outerwear. It has also been shown that they are good at guarding flocks.
Miller and Roper believe have two possibilities for the second animal— a gomphothere with the genus name of Cuvieronius, and a mastodon named Mammut, both relatives of the elephant family. They wrote:
… Both Cuvieronius and Mammut are very large animals having tusks and a proboscis, or trunk. Both of these were intelligent animals based on the size and configuration of their braincases as determined from fossils. Consequently, it can be seen that they were capable of being tamed and trained, but probably not domesticated. …
Cuvieronius and Mammut coexisted into the late Pleistocene in Mesoamerica, with the former being more common in the southern part of this land and the latter in the more northern part.
These are possibilities for a curelom and cumom, but no one knows for sure. The scholarly research into the Book of Mormon provides an interesting perspective into the lives and cultures of these ancient peoples. Although science and scholars can answer some questions raised by the animals in the Book of Mormon, they cannot answer all of them. This is where the reader must rely on a spiritual witness that the book is true.